Thursday, 30 March 2017

Amorphous white glowing shape or ghost?

White shapeI would hesitate to describe this photo (right) as showing a possible ghost. That's because ghosts are usually reported as looking just like normal human figures. Often the only reason a witness knows they are looking at a ghost is because such a person could not have been physically present. Or it may do something impossible, like disappear. The white shape here does, at least, have white 'appendages' on either side near the top, reminiscent of arms!

In popular culture ghosts are sometimes depicted as white and/or misty. So when people take a photo like the one here, an amorphous white glowing shape, they may interpret it as depicting a ghost. I'd simply describe it as a white anomaly. Anyway, what exactly is it?

I do know what the anomaly is because I took the photo deliberately, as I often do, to reproduce a type of anomalous photo. There are some clues in the photo itself. Firstly, the 'ghost' is entirely in front of the trees which means it could be out of focus. Secondly, there are several obvious white circles within the overall 'ghost' shape. These are typical of out of focus highlights, confirming the focus idea. Thirdly, there is, just below the main white anomaly, a faint transparent pale band going leftward to the edge of the frame. It is, of course, the stem of a plant. The object is an out of focus reed. It is bright because it is strongly illuminated by the sun.

White shapeHere (right) is exactly the same scene, taken at the same time, but with the reed in focus and the trees now out of focus. The reeds are not quite the same shape, overall, as the 'ghost' in the original photo. That's because there was a stiff wind at the time and the reeds were constantly moving, forming different 'ghost' shapes all the time.

It's difficult to say where the idea that ghosts are white or misty originated. It may have come from an artistic convention used to differentiate between ghosts and real people in paintings or movies. Or maybe it was simply because people thought there 'ought' to be some visual difference between ghosts and people. I honestly don't know where such ideas actually come from but I'm pretty sure it isn't from real life cases. Indeed, I suspect that many of the supposed attributes of ghosts in popular culture come from the widespread idea that ghosts are spirits, despite the lack of evidence to support that view (see here) from real life cases.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Was I a ghost?

BuzzardIt was at the end of a concert I attended recently. I was walking slowly towards the exit when I noticed a woman staring at me. Slightly surprised, I looked away, walked on a little and then looked back. She was still staring at me intently. I turned, walked on and looked back again. She was still staring at me. I walked on once again and turned back. But this time the woman had gone.

So why might this woman have been staring at me so intently? It was difficult to make out her expression, which might have given a clue, as the venue was fairly dark as such places often are. My best guess is that she thought she recognized me. I certainly didn't recognise her so she would have been mistaken. So why didn't she approach me or say hello? Perhaps because, if I was who she thought I was, I couldn't have been there! And by the definition of a ghost used here ("a ghost is a human figure, witnessed by someone, which cannot be physically present") I would be a ghost!

I've made a lot of assumptions to suggest that I was a ghost on this occasion. So I may well have got it all wrong. But it still raises an important point. A ghost sighting could be easily caused by someone seeing a person's double. And if the person the witness thought it was could not have been physically present, the incident could easily be reported as a ghost sighting. I can think of one or two examples of apparently good ghost sightings I've come across that could be explained this way.

But surely doubles are very rare, aren't they? I don't know the figures (or even if any such statistics exist) but I do know I've met mine. I was introduced to my double by someone who'd seen us both separately. I wasn't convinced he was my exact double myself but I'm probably not the best judge of my own appearance. I remember the man was similar enough for me to get an odd feeling meeting him.

I'll never know why that woman was staring at me. I don't think it was my appearance or clothing as she only looked at my face. Maybe I was indeed a ghost, to her. But next time I come across a ghost sighting of a witness seeing someone they knew who could not possibly be physically present, I'll certainly consider a double as a possible explanation.

And the photo (above right)? Well, I thought about a picture of me and decided the buzzard would be more interesting.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Another source of 'presence'?

Sun behind treeMy acquaintance (MA) who has microsleep with REM (MWR) experiences, which resemble paranormal phenomena, was on a train recently, idly looking out of the window. Without looking round, MA was aware that someone sat down in the adjacent vacant seat. Then, suddenly, MA had the feeling characteristic of emerging from a MWR. Looking round, there was no one in the adjacent seat!

MWRs usually last for no more than a second or two and there was no one in the adjacent seat before or afterwards. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the feeling of a 'presence' in the adjacent seat was entirely a product of the MWR. MA has not had this particular kind of MWR before. Previously ghostly figures have been plainly visible (see here for instance).

I have noted in the past that sound can induce a ghostly sense of presence, in me at least (see here and here for instance). Now it seems MWRs can also cause such feelings. Lab experiments have induced a sense of presence using the sense of touch. I suspect therefore that, like ghostly figure and UFO sightings, the sense of presence can have any one of a number of different causes.

MA also reports that MWRs appear to come of a particular type for several days running and then change to another type for the next few days. This pattern repeats endlessly. So, for instance, MA's recent MWRs have all consisted of bizarrely surreal scenes. Before that there were musical MWRs. Interestingly, the 'surreal' type MWRs corresponded to MA attending a concert. The MWRs appeared during certain songs, like a sort of pop video. Being surreal in content it was difficult to say if they were inspired by the music!

Without talking to other people who get MWRs, I can't know if having particular types of MWR for several days in a row is typical or unusual. Unfortunately, there is very little documentation on this sort of phenomena. It also explains why few anomaly researchers consider the idea that MWRs occurring to a witness unaware of their true cause might explain some strange phenomena reports.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

From goose to ghost

Egyptian GooseWhen I saw this photo (right) I knew straight away something was wrong. What is strange is the object, resembling a pale leaf, in front of the goose. I have a bad memory but I know for sure that there was no object in front of the goose when I took the photo a couple of days previously. So what is going on?

I have reduced the photo to a small size here deliberately. It is similar to the size when I first noticed the 'leaf' object. As soon as I zoomed in on the photo the mystery was resolved. As can be seen in the cropped version of the photo (below right) the object is not in front of the goose at all. It is some kind of flat concrete object in the grass, possibly an inspection cover or something similar. I admit I did not notice it at the time but since it was behind the bird, rather than in front of it, I wouldn't have regarded it as important.

The concrete object appears to be in front of the goose, in the smaller version of the picture, because it more or less matches the colour of the bird's neck at that point. So, it is coincidence based on a number of factors coming together. There is the similarity of colouration between part of the bird's neck and concrete object. Then there is the relative position of the bird, concrete object and photographer which need to line up in very specific way for the 'leaf' to appear. Finally, there is the way the goose has two different colours in its neck! Even though I know what is causing the effect it still looks like a leaf in front of the goose in the smaller photo to me. That would make it that rarity, a photographic misperception (see here for more on this).

Egyptian Goose (detail)This is a good example of how a coincidence can make things appear quite different to reality. Such coincidences can certainly give rise to paranormal reports. While no one is likely to report a 'paranormal leaf', a different set of circumstances could give rise to an apparent human figure that would 'vanish' as soon as the witness changed position. This might easily be reported as a ghost. With a photo it is possible to examine the scene again and again and zoom in and enhance the image. But with a casual observation the first impression is the only one available, wrong or right.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Ghost investigation conference

Sun behind treeASSAP is running a conference concerned with ghost investigation on 1 April in Bristol (details here). Ghost investigation is, of course, a big thing these days. When I first started out in paranormal research it was all rather different. We would wait, sometimes months or even years, for someone to report a ghost sighting and then go and interview them. If the case seemed to merit it, we might hold a ghost vigil at the site of the sighting. However, such vigils seldom, if ever, produced any compelling evidence of paranormal activity.

In those days there were few instruments available. But there still and video cameras and audio recorders available, of course. Even with such basic equipment it was possible to find interesting evidence after the event. I never relished looking through hours of video of an empty room where nothing was happening but it had to be done. And, just occasionally, something was caught on camera. But there was a problem with this.

Suppose a witness on the vigil reported something unusual happening and the area was being monitored by a video camera. This was excellent because the video recording might give a good idea of what had really happened. This usually turned out to be either something mundane or nothing appeared on the recording for the relevant time at all.

Then there was the other type of event, more common, where something odd was noted on the recording but not by any witness at the time. Suppose, for instance, it was an unknown voice. Because no one present heard it at the time it would be labelled an EVP. However, it could be that it WAS heard at the time but not as a voice. It might have been recognised as an environmental sound, like shuffling paper, a creaking chair or someone knocking the microphone! It only sounded like a voice in the recording because it was formant noise (sounds with peaks in the frequency spectrum that happen, by chance, to form a harmonic ratio).

The same kind of thing could happen with vigil photographs. Anomalies might appear in photos that witnesses at the vigil didn't see at the time. Many of these were probably photographic artefacts caused by such things as overexposure, camera shake, objects out of focus, long exposures, etc. For an in-depth discussion of such photographic artefacts see here.

As this brief note shows, ghost investigation is a complex subject, fully justifying a conference.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

A ghost returns!

ShadowI was startled recently by a dark figure lurking unexpectedly behind me. I shouldn't have been surprised really because it was the door ghost (background here) appearing in exactly the same place it always has. However, it has been a while since I've seen the ghost and I was not expecting it, or thinking about it, at all.

Last May I concluded that, after a long absence, the door ghost had gone forever (see here). But then it unexpectedly reappeared, just once, last September (see here). But that only seemed to be the exception that proved the rule. I decided the ghost had disappeared because I was approaching the door from a different direction from the way I used to. The solitary September reappearance was put down to the particular lighting on the day in question. So why has it reappeared this time?

The answer turned out to be simple. I was wearing a coat that I hardly ever wear. It has especially baggy sleeves, enlarging the apparent size of my arms. Since the ghostly figure is a misperception of my own hand and arm, this all makes sense. Indeed, it made me wonder. I used to wear that particular coat a lot more than I do nowadays. Could part of the reason why the ghost no longer appears much be related to that change in clothing?

Misperception is highly dependent on the exact circumstances of how an object is observed. There are a number of trigger factors (see here) involved that promote the misperception of an object as something else. But perhaps the most important factor in misperception is the apparent shape of the object being misperceived. I say 'apparent shape' because often it is not the true full shape of the object but a partially obscured view.

It will be interesting to see if the door ghost reappears again. If it does, I'm sure there will be some special factor, not always present, like the coat, that makes the difference.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Disappearing heron!

HeronAs a birder, I'm always on the look out for birds when travelling by public transport. It's amazing what you can spot in such circumstances when you try. I've even spotted rare birds in this way. So when I saw the crouching heron from a train recently I was delighted but hardly surprised. What happened next, though, was very surprising indeed.

The 'heron' suddenly disappeared to be replaced by what it truly was, a low white object resembling a (British) fire hydrant sign. I don't know if it really was a sign as the whole scene was soon out of sight. What astonished me was how absolutely perfect this particular misperception was. I was in absolutely no doubt, at the time, that I was looking at a heron and even tried to get a better view before it went out of sight. So when it suddenly changed into something else I was shocked. I've seen a lot of misperceptions in recent years but this was among the very best. I can't recall exactly how the misperception disappeared but it was rapid. The heron in the photo (right) doesn't look very rectangular, like the 'sign' (or whatever it was), but when crouching they have a quite different overall shape.

I saw another striking misperception from a different train just a couple of days later. This time it concerned the fence running alongside the railway. When I looked directly at it, the fence looked unremarkable. But if I looked up, so that the fence went into peripheral vision, the fence became a wall! If I looked back it was a fence once again. And if I looked up again, it became a wall again. As such, it was an unusually robust misperception.

Of course, misperceptions are quite common in peripheral vision but usually they disappear once you've seen them in central vision, even if you subsequently view them in peripheral vision again. I wonder if the motion of the train was adding to the robustness of the misperception. It makes me wonder if witness or object motion might be another misperception trigger? It would make sense as the other triggers limit how well an object is perceived.